Six Big Ideas: Going Forward

Christopher C. Dahl, President, SUNY Geneseo
Presentation to the College Community
May 12, 2010

Thank you all for joining me today, one year after we launched the Six Big Ideas initiative. I appreciate your willingness to meet at this busy time, as we seek to wrap up the work of the semester and make our way to Commencement-a symbolic new beginning for our graduates and a time for us to look back on the four years we have spent with them as they have developed and matured, and as they now, ready or not, set forth into the world beyond Geneseo. Before we all scatter for the summer, I would like to take this opportunity to assess what we have accomplished since last May, take honest stock of the financial condition of the College, and look forward to the challenges and opportunities we face in the coming year.

One year ago, my prognosis for the budget was grim. It will surprise no one in this room to hear me say that I was right. And I take no pleasure in my ability to predict the obvious. As we projected then, we began this year with a $3.3 million budget shortfall. In the fall, we were hit with a further mid-year cut of $890,000. My recent memo (.pdf)  on the budget provides all of the details, but the bottom line remains the same: We have made it successfully through this year, only by continuing a series of one-time cuts, maintaining hiring freezes in most areas of the College, and making use, as planned, of reserve fund balances in IFR's and other revenue accounts. But who could have predicted last May the summer melt-down of the New York State Senate, Governor Paterson's decision not to seek re-election, and now the specter of state employee furloughs? We live, as they say, in (excessively) interesting times.

[A brief word about the furloughs. They are a real possibility. They are serious. But we are in an extremely fluid and changing situation in Albany. So far, the furloughs apply only to next week. They do not affect all employees of the College. They are part of the Governor's negotiating process on the State budget. And in that process, to an unfortunate extent, we are held hostage as the Governor seeks to make both houses of the legislature address the budget issues. As Vice President Levison said in yesterday's message to the College community, as soon as we get the details on implementation from the SUNY system administration, we'll share them with you. Though we must take the possibility of furloughs seriously, I would like to stay focused on the long-term issues we face as a College. The College will do everything in its power, however, to provide complete information and to minimize the effects of any furloughs on our operations.]

As we look at Geneseo's long-term budgetary situation, we face severe challenges. Again, this is no surprise. As I have pointed out repeatedly in the past year, the College's current budget gap is structural. This year we are closing the gap with one-time measures and through the use of reserves from revenue accounts. We plan to do the same thing again next year, but the College's reserve funds are finite and will not take us beyond the middle of the 2011-12 fiscal year. We cannot continue to operate with a structural deficit between two and three million dollars. We cannot continue with hiring freezes and across-the-board cuts without threatening the quality of the education we offer. If the Public Higher Education Empowerment Act is not passed and if we do not receive-and are allowed to keep-significant additional tuition revenue, we must consider how to move forward in a very challenging budgetary environment. It is more evident every day that diminished state funding is the "new normal" for New York State. That's why the Higher Education Empowerment Act is so important. There are signs that the Act may be making some headway in the Assembly, but we cannot predict what, if any portions of the Act will survive; and in any event it would not be prudent to pin all our hopes on its passage this year. We shall continue to advocate vigorously for the Higher Education Empowerment Act and for additional funds for SUNY, but at the same time we must also plan for the worst and keep all options on the table.

As I mentioned in my budget message, Geneseo's situation is not unique in American higher education. We face an environment, as we did last year, in which we have a choice. We can manage the budget by whittling away at the edges of programs, making incremental cuts, and watching the quality, the essential characteristics, of a Geneseo education-indeed the very fabric of the College itself and all we have built together-dwindle away and ultimately disappear. Or we can seek to set our own destiny and approach the future of Geneseo in a more positive fashion that will allow us to survive and prevail as an outstanding public liberal arts college.

Through the Six Big Ideas and other initiatives in the past year that I will tell you about, we have taken the latter, more positive course. But the uncertainty of the budget and the magnitude of the cuts to SUNY make it necessary that we also consider more radical and difficult options. Given the size of the cuts in the Governor's budget, in fact, it may not be feasible, on a long-term basis, to make incremental, across-the-board cuts. We cannot, at any rate, continue for more than another year or two by using reserves to fill the gaps in the budget. That is why we have reluctantly reached the conclusion that we must explore and seriously consider program reductions during the coming year.

These are not desirable options to contemplate, and every fiber in my being rebels against them. It is not entirely certain that we will need to implement them, but face them we must, honestly and realistically, if we are to preserve our essential quality as a public liberal arts college. And as we deal with the worst budget in thirty years, I want to be as open and transparent with the College community as possible about the alternatives we face.

What would we be looking at in considering the options, and what process might we use to do so? The Budget Priorities Committee, co-chaired by Vice President Levison and Professor David Granger, met before the end of classes to discuss the process that might be used to determine permanent budget cuts. The Committee indicated that they wished to be consulted in a general fashion about possible budgetary actions the College might take. They did not want to make recommendations on specific departmental or program reductions. They requested that the College administration bring them options-this is what we're thinking and this is how it might reshape the College. They also identified criteria for program reductions. Here they are:

• Centrality to the College's mission
• Program Quality
• Efficiency/Effectiveness of the Program
• Inter-relatedness to Other Programs
• Enrollment, Cost per Student, and other Cost Metrics
• Effect on Alumni

They also recommended that the president spell out the financial situation in a detailed message to the College community and give all members of the community an opportunity to make further suggestions for cost savings. As you know, I have done this in my memo of May 6.

Where do we go from here? First, I plan to keep the College's two relevant consultative bodies, the Budget Priorities Committee and the Strategic Planning Group, fully informed of our planning-and fully involved in an advisory capacity. As you know, the membership of those groups is deliberately designed to overlap with our shared governance system; and each body provides a voice in decision-making for faculty, staff and students. The Strategic Planning Group is the keeper of the College's mission, and anything we do must support our Mission. They are also charged with the task of keeping our eyes on the future and guiding the work on the Six Big Ideas initiatives. Second, over the coming weeks and months we shall of course follow the budget developments in Albany closely and keep all members of the College community informed of their implications for Geneseo. To support our planning and decision-making, I have asked Jim Milroy, Julie Rao, and the Provost's staff to gather relevant data about programs, costs, and potential savings. The task of considering and identifying possible budget options will occur over the summer, and we will be able to be much more definitive about both the issues and the challenges we face when we all gather in the fall.

Having laid out the challenges in our current situation, let me step back from the immediate prospect and talk about what we have accomplished in the past year and what the inevitable process of change might mean for Geneseo. There is much good news to report, and I remain convinced that we are making progress in moving the College closer to its ideals as an outstanding public liberal arts college. We are not marking time. We are not retreating. Change is always difficult, but we must continue to be active rather than reactive and keep moving forward together as a College. This is the choice we have made. And this is exactly what the task forces on the Six Big Ideas have done in the past year-and continue to do now, as their ideas and recommendations move forward under the aegis of the Strategic Planning Group.

As you may recall, the Six Big Ideas were intended to accomplish two things: on the one hand, to generate increased revenue, greater efficiencies, or better integration of our programs; and on the other, to improve Geneseo as a public liberal arts college and thereby strengthen our position in the distinctive niche we occupy in SUNY and in higher education in general. To a greater or lesser extent, each one of the six initiatives has already moved us closer to these goals. What we know now that we didn't know on May 6, 2009, is that the need to advance the six initiatives is even more urgent, as the State's budget situation deteriorates. Given the challenges that confront us, moving forward in implementing the Six Big Ideas is no longer optional. In our present situation, even more than a year ago, it is clear that this period of adversity can be a major turning-point in the history of the College, a time when we can shape the nature of Geneseo for a long time to come. In the late 1970s, the College faced similar budgetary challenges, but out of that process emerged our Core Curriculum and the much stronger admissions operation that transformed Geneseo into the nationally ranked institution it is today.

Let me talk about what we've accomplished on each of the six initiatives, but first a word of thanks. I am deeply grateful to the members of all six task forces for their efforts over last summer and at the end of the fall semester, when the final task force reports were due. Since then, the Strategic Planning Group and faculty and staff from throughout the College have worked hard to implement the ideas. My thanks to them as well and especially to Carol Long, Dave Gordon, and Paul Schacht, who have done much of the legwork-and much of the wiki work, too.

The work of the Bringing Theory to Practice group has borne fruit in a number of ways-perhaps not so much in savings or new revenue, but certainly in efficiency and greater quality. It has even helped us in defining the primary focus of our Middle States self-study process, namely, transformational learning. This, I would submit, is a good example of economy of effort. Bringing Theory to Practice has also helped us to understand how all our efforts to promote transformational learning fit together and foster Geneseo's excellence as a public liberal arts college. The pilot project emerging from the discussions of the group, the "Real World Geneseo" course, was a splendid success and provides a model for promoting diversity and inclusion at our College. It has just received a second grant from the SUNY Office of Diversity and Equity (so I suppose it has garnered new resources). Related but not directly part of the work of Bringing Theory to Practice, I am also pleased to note that a draft college-wide diversity plan has been presented to the Strategic Planning Group for consideration. Already, we are seeing the fruits of increased efforts to recruit a diverse student body-as well as signs of more positive campus climate.

The development of innovative five-year programs is probably the most effective of the Six Big Ideas, if one considers revenue alone; but it also represents an opportunity to create distinctive integrated bachelor's and master's degree programs that leverage our unique strengths as a public liberal arts college. An integrated master's degree program in literacy education has been approved at the SUNY level, and the new integrated program in science education has been approved at the campus level. Work continues on the other programs, and discussions are continuing. In the School of Business, enrollments in the integrated M.S. in accounting program already in place have increased. In our current situation, it absolutely essential to make further progress in program design for integrated five-year programs for teacher preparation, so that formal approval may be sought in the fall.

Expanded Instructional Delivery. In this area, I am pleased to report that we have made progress in expanding the ways we offer courses and adding non-traditional modes of course delivery in areas where they supplement our traditional teaching methods as a residential liberal arts college. We have a robust summer program on the books, and it has drawn more students than last year. Courses include a new offering of Humanities I in New York City, on the campus of Manhattan College. We are also piloting a summer course program for alumni to test its potential for raising revenue and strengthening our alumni's ties to their alma mater. We have also completed an inventory of non-traditional and "blended-delivery" courses, which are attractive summer offerings.

Reconfigure curriculum. We are actively exploring what implementation of the change from five to four courses would mean on the ground. Six departments have volunteered individuals or groups to work on "demonstration" curricula this summer, to test what might happen if we move forward on the idea. We have taken a teaching inventory in all departments to clarify the effects of such a change on faculty workload, and to ensure that reconfiguring our curriculum will not add to it. In addition to the extensive research conducted by the task force, we know that more than a dozen colleges in AAC&U are considering such a shift, and we will be able to learn from their work-as well as from similar changes implemented at The College of New Jersey, which members of the Task Force visited this fall. The reasons for this switch are primarily learning-related (in keeping with the principles of Bringing Theory to Practice), but such a change will also benefit Geneseo in terms of budget and faculty workload. We are seeking to cost out those benefits more precisely as well.
The Task Force on Collaborative Research surveyed peer institutions and aspirational peers about levels of support for collaborative research and undergraduate research. While the members of the task force did not endorse the creation of a center for collaborative research, we learned a lot from their reports. In response to their report, the Office of Sponsored Research is developing a website and searchable data base on faculty research. Research is important in a public liberal arts college that upholds the scholar-teacher model, and we now have a much clearer idea of what we need to encourage success in major grant writing. On the basis of the report, we have repurposed the Research Council, so that it can play an even more prominent role in supporting sponsored research and grant writing. In the past year we have already seen some notable successes in garnering major grants and getting prestigious fellowships such as Fulbrights-three of them in the past few weeks, in Sociology (Denise Scott and Steve Derne) and Education (Linda Steet). One thing is clear: we need further to explore the meaning and nature of faculty research in a public liberal arts college-especially one like Geneseo, with our strong record of undergraduate research.

Our work on Strategic Community Partnerships has also borne good fruit since the task force submitted its final report. I have already mentioned the plans for a Geneseo Summer Institute for alumni. In the next several months we will move to create a virtual clearing-house for our numerous and varied community partnerships. We are moving ahead on creating a teacher research center that will leverage our extensive experience in both the Rochester City schools and high-need rural districts-an idea, I might add, very much in keeping with the SUNY strategic plan for an urban-rural teacher corps. We are exploring enhanced use of our Geographic Information Systems (GIS) lab for local and regional planning and environmental work. And, perhaps most exciting, thanks to alumnus Greg O'Connell '64, we are engaged in a multi-disciplinary community partnership in Mt. Morris, drawing upon faculty and student expertise and enthusiasm for service-learning in a wide range of fields, from business and communication to the arts. In fact, students from our School of the Arts have recently presented a performance of Waiting for Godot in renovated space in Mt. Morris. This work, an inspired re-creation of Greg O'Connell's community development in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, has major potential as model of college-community partnerships and a replicable experiment in rural development. Here, too, Geneseo's work is very much in keeping with the six big ideas in SUNY's strategic plan. We will recognize Greg O'Connell's work as a community developer at Commencement on Saturday.

As I hope you can see, all of the initiatives I have mentioned this afternoon are vital to our continuing success as a public liberal arts college. All of them also address the budgetary challenges we face. All of them position us at the forefront of liberal education for the Twenty-First Century. All of them have potential to engage us as faculty and members of the staff in multiple exciting ways.
As we head toward Commencement, in spite of the seemingly never-ending hassles of the state budget as it works its way through a frustrating legislative process, I believe that there are still events to celebrate, accomplishments by many to praise, and accomplishments to take great pride in. As I pointed out last year, it is more challenging to keep our eyes on advancing the college, while simultaneously dealing with very difficult budget issues. It will require great care and the willingness to invest in the future while we protect what is excellent in Geneseo's college community. Even in the midst of bad times, we have made continuing commitments in areas that will make things better in the future. On that front as well, there is some good news to share. I've already mentioned our success in recruiting multicultural scholars for next year. That's an area where we've maintained funding-and it has paid off. The number of multicultural fellows has doubled from last year, and our yield rate for talented students from all backgrounds has increased, according to preliminary data. There is further good news in the advancement area. Commitments to the forthcoming capital campaign now stand at close to $12 million--$7.5 million of that for endowment, which will keep supporting students and faculty long after we are gone. Total annual giving to Geneseo is currently running $700,000 ahead of this time last year-a product in part of modest recovery in the economy, but also the result of hard work by the staff and volunteers in Advancement. If you ask more people for money, you will in all probability raise more money, and the number of staff visits to individual donors this year will substantially exceed 500, up from 364 last year. Finally, we have experienced good fortune on the federal funding front. Thanks to the efforts of Congressman Lee and Senators Schumer and Gillibrand, we have received $1 million in appropriations for a new Fourier Transform Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectrometer. This major equipment will assist faculty and student researchers in all our science programs. We have also received support from Senators Schumer and Gillibrand for a $384,000 request for a scanning electron microscope. This is equipment, but it is enabling equipment for a very hard-working faculty in the sciences and an outstanding program of undergraduate research-one of the hallmarks of a Geneseo education.

So, you see, we do have much to celebrate. We are in very perilous times, but I am confident that we can manage them well, that we can field the curveballs and handle the challenges of a very difficult period of change in SUNY and the State of New York. Some of you may be aware of the SUNY system-wide planning process. Four members of our community-Linda House (Communicative Disorders), Gregg Hartvigsen (Biology), Dennis Showers (College Senate), and Brice Weigman (College Controller)-have been participating in the so-called Group of 200: faculty, staff, and community leaders who have met on eight occasions since December, throughout the state, to fashion the major outlines of a strategic plan, launched last month in a series of community meetings across the state. This comprehensive plan, as Dennis pointed out at last week's College Senate meeting, is very much externally focused and seeks to position the System in the aggregate, at the most general level, as a force for economic and civic development for the entire state. In planning for the years ahead, we shall of course keep our focus on developing Geneseo as an outstanding public liberal arts college, with unique strengths to offer the state and nation; but our efforts in general and the initiatives I have been discussing today are not incompatible with the SUNY plan. The title of the plan is "The Power of SUNY." Under the plan there are-guess what-Six Big Ideas. When I spoke at the Rochester launch of the plan, I took some pleasure in reminding Chancellor Zimpher that, when she made her initial visit to Geneseo last July, she first heard of the "Six Big Ideas." Sometimes, perhaps, plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery. Seriously, though, there are many connections between our Six Big Ideas and the SUNY strategic plan-a fact that will help Geneseo thrive in the coming years.

In the current political environment, I am often a bit skeptical about the power (lower case) of SUNY, but I am unshaken in my belief in the power of Geneseo. That power comes from our focus on excellence in liberal and liberating education for the whole person in a public setting-excellence, not in local or system-wide terms, but in national terms; our ability as faculty, staff, and administrators to work together and get things done; our great sense of community; a dynamic but lasting commitment by faculty and staff to teaching and learning in partnership with talented undergraduates; and our ability to do more than one thing at once and do it well. That's the power of Geneseo. It has stood us in good stead in the past and will do so again. I have tried to be as honest and transparent about the very real challenges we face, but I want you to leave here with a sense of our own powers as a community of teachers and learners, if we exercise them wisely and fully. I have every confidence that we can and we shall.